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Future Fibre: Wifi Dabba

by on November 27, 2020

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Future Fibre: Wifi Dabba

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https://zoom.us/j/91434411985?pwd=aEc0OUdEN3BnNWQyekIydThzUTRVUT09

Wifi Dabba is a fascinating story from India about innovation in broadband, even though the company happens to be based in Delaware, with offices in California, and is backed by major silicon valley venture capital.

The company is focused on providing broadband Internet to the next billion users, and their plan begins in urban India.

They got their start in Bangalore by piloting affordable wifi access via chai wallahs, or tea stalls, that are comparable to mini c-stores or tiny bodegas.

 

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A post shared by WiFi Dabba (@wifidabba)

Each tea stall would have a wifi access point, and the company ensured that they had enough wifi points at enough tea stalls that they provided coverage across urban Bangalore.

This was all done as a proof of concept, to demonstrate the demand for affordable Internet access. Rather than spend time or money building their own devices, they used makeshift raspberry Pis that acted as routers/wifi hotspots. This embodies the good enough or minimal viable product philosophy that many startups follow.

 

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A post shared by WiFi Dabba (@wifidabba)

With the concept proven, and a growing base of customers, Wifi Dabba then began their next phase, which was to create their own, laser based urban Internet infrastructure. Where the first iteration plugged into local cable providers, this would allow the company to have their own infrastructure, and therefore lower prices even further.

The prices they’re able to offer are incredible, a result of both a dense service area, but also their own innovative network design and technology.

However, founded in 2016, the Y-Combinator graduate startup Wifi Dabba has announced that it will soon offer internet services at extremely inexpensive prices. Back in 2017, the startup offered data at Rs 2 per 200MB and at Rs 2 per 1GB in 2018. It has now announced that it will offer 1GB for Rs 1 in 2020 and at speeds of up to 1Gbps. The company is currently offering its services in Bengaluru but it aims to soon expand its reach to other states, based on the user interest and registrations it receives.

Wifi Dabba aims to deliver affordable internet service in India by lowering the cost of access for the next billion users. The company provides a Wi-Fi router free of charge and doesn’t charge for installation either. Available in public places such as ‘Chaiwallahs’ all over Bengaluru, the internet service is available in prepaid sachets and also for free if you are up for watching some ads or solving some puzzles to access the internet for free. The company’s goal is to build a city-wide mesh network so that users who purchase its service can stay connected no matter where they travel in the city.

The title of this series is Future Fibre, which is designed to emphasize the value we place on fibre. However we also recognize and have shared stories that speak to the whatever it takes spirit of innovation that is often required. In the case of Wifi Dabba, they are focused on FTTH or fibre to the home, but are using lasers for the core arteries of their network.

The supernodes work using eye-safe lasers, a technology that communicates over distances of up to 2 km with no latency, claims the company, adding that they can throughput up to 100Gbps.

Each supernode is connected to various switches that distribute bandwidth to WiFi Dabba routers in homes. These routers too are designed in-house and come with dual-band connectivity.

The lasers use spectrum that is publicly accessible, which means the company doesn’t have to pay for additional licensing or spend a fortune at a spectrum auction.

But it’s not as easy as it sounds. CounterPoint research analyst Neil Shah believes the lasers WiFi Dabba is using to offer “cheap” data have potential but are also problematic in some situations. Shah explains this is a relatively cheaper technique called Free Space Optical Communication (FSO) tech. “This has been used for almost a decade for specific applications but to limited success in commercial use by telco due to some of the technical limitations especially reliability in rain, dust, foggy or hot conditions.”

“The technology has been popular to transmit between satellites or in environments where deploying optical fibre network is costlier,” he says, adding that it is interesting that WiFi Dabba is using this tech to build a low-cost data network.

Shah says the the tech is yet to be proven for mass deployments and is not standardised or adopted by the tech industry. “Many companies who have invested and have been developing the products for this tech has been struggling over the last decade. But I believe the business model and target segment for the WiFi Dabba aligns with this tech well,” he adds.

Here’s an explanation from one of the company’s co-founders:

Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC) sounds interesting, with tremendous potential, and this alone makes Wifi Dabba worth following.

One of the interesting insights from the video above is the argument that Wifi Dabba is more comparable to a cloud provider like Amazon Web Services rather than a traditional ISP. This partly reflects the company’s ambitions to provide mesh network connectivity as well as additional services.

Interesting to note how easy they’re making it for people to join their network:

However scaling a network across a major city like Bangalore requires significant capital, even with innovative network design and technology.

Wifi Dabba was incubated at and has received funding from venture capital firm Y Combinator. This means their focus has and always will be on scale.

It’s interesting that they see that scale being accomplished via franchises.

The barriers to entering the telecom market have always been significant. While wireless technology has had a huge impact in lowering those barriers, they still largely depended upon the infrastructure of established incumbents, meaning that wireless providers were essentially proxies for the oligopolies.

Creative funding models are an essential and required innovation if we are to see lower prices and new entrants into the (global) marketplace. We previously profiled Althea which is comparable to a franchise model, but in this case, Wifi Dabba actually is.

In their initial target city of Bangalore, they’ve established 100 PoPs or points of presence. Each PoP has a 1km radius, with 18,000 potential subscribers. The entire services if fully managed by Wifi Dabba, and guarantees a return. Or at least that is their claim. The current price of each PoP is U$20,000 and of the 100 there appears to be 35 left as I write this.

Which if you think of it is a fairly decent investment opportunity in what is otherwise looking like a global bear market.

I’m not an investor in Wifi Dabba, and I have no intention of doing so at present, as selfishly I’d spend such money on my own Internet if I could. I’m also not encouraging you to invest, but I am impressed with this model.

Which brings us back to their offices in California. Is this a model that can be scaled to cities around the world? They do list their master plan on their home page:

  1. Build cheaper network tech
  2. Prove tech by connecting one city
  3. Deploy across 10,000 cities worldwide

Not the usual rural focus we tend to have, but given that roughly 7% of India has access to broadband, Wifi Dabba provides a fascinating model for making access affordable and accessible.

Plus can you imagine your Internet being structured and priced like this:


We can only dream.

Finally, here’s more on their philosophy:

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